Jimson Weed, Datura, Thorn Apple, Toloache

Datura inoxia Mill.
Solanaceae (Nightshade Family)

Jimson weed is an upright or sprawling herbaceous perennial with large, showy flowers that open at night. It is a highly toxic plant but was used by knowledgeable native peoples for medicinal purposes and for shamanistic ritual.

The funnel-shaped flower has five white petals united at the base to form the funnel. The closely related species, Datura wrightii Regel., is a similar but slightly smaller plant that is reported to have white to violet flowers. Both plants produce a fruit that is a noding, globose capsule with spiny protuberances. It measures about 1.75 inches in diameter, and pops open when it dries out, releasing the numerous seeds. Jimson weed is widely scattered in dry streambeds, along active stream terraces, and along canyon ledges and rims, and roadsides across the Lower Pecos region.

Jimson weed is one of the most potent narcotic plants native to North America. Unlike many of the cacti that contain psychoactive compounds, jimson weed is a dangerously poisonous plant that has killed many people who have ingested it. When recreational use is attempted in Western societies, deaths often occur (Litovitz et al. 1994). Datura plants contain many powerful compounds including the belladonna alkaloids atropine, hyoscine or scoplalamine, and hyoscyamine (Bye et al. 1991). These compounds produce complex physical reactions when any part of the plant is ingested. Symptoms include hallucinations, memory loss, very high fever, tachycardia (heartbeat above 120/minute), and not infrequently, death.

Archeological occurrence. Seeds were noted in Middle Archaic deposits of Hinds Cave (Dering 1979). The seeds were recovered from a sotol mat fragment adjacent to a hearth within in a large midden-like deposit. The context does not suggest special use or treatment, such as a cache. Datura has been recovered from surface structures at pueblo sites in the southwest, where activity spaces were more formally organized and preservation is much better. At Higgins Flat Pueblo near the San Francisco River, New Mexico, about 900 datura seeds were found on the floor of a room that yielded ceremonial objects (Cutler 1956; Cutler and Kaplan 1956; Yarnell 1959).

Ethnographic records indicate that the use of datura would have been limited to focused activities such as healing ceremonies, rights of passage, and other ritual occasions. Recovering seeds from archeological sites would be considered a very rare find. In Lower Pecos rockshelters, in is quite unlikely that ceremonial seeds would be found in trash or midden deposits. The few archeological contexts within which datura seeds may have been placed are limited to offerings in burials or special caches, most of which have been disturbed or destroyed by looters.

Medicine and ritual. In medicinal or ritual applications, datura was and is a two-edged sword. It had to be used carefully by the experienced practicioner, and even then the drug could either heal or kill (Bean and Saubel 1972:61). The seeds contain the most alkaloids, but the entire plant is loaded with dangerous compounds. Shamans or healers used the entire plant including seeds, roots, stem, and leaves. It was utilized for divination, prophecy, initiation ceremonies, ritual intoxication, diagnosis and healing. Groups of northern Mexico used datura (Bennet and Zingg 1935; Pennington 1963; Zingg 1938). Virtually all the Southwestern groups with a recorded ethnobotany used datura, including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Navajo, Paiute, Yokut, and the Yuman groups (Bean and Saubel 1972; Elmore 1943; La Barre 1975; Schultes 1972). Only a brief introduction to the extensive literature on the subject is presented here. The tribes of southern California and the Zuñi of northern New Mexico provide an interesting overview for the use of this plant.

The Cahuilla shamans used datura to transcend the physical world and embark on magical flights to the spirit world. The shaman journeyed to the spirit realm to gain useful information for his people. The Cahuilla and other southern California groups used the properties of datura in puberty rites for boys. While under the influence of datura, the young boy would receive information regarding his talents and make connections with the spirit world, and these would affect his standing in the community as an adult (Bean and Saubel 1972:62). Dancers used the plant to gain strength for very long ceremonies including the eagle dance. In ceremonies requiring singing, the singers were permitted to take datura for strength. These applications involved very low doses of datura, sometimes added to other drinks (Bean and Saubel 1972:65). Chumash shamans used datura to journey to travel to the spirit realm and gain information with guardians or dream helpers, communicate with the dead, predict the future, and to heal (Applegate 1975).

The hallucinations generated by datura intoxication, when mediated by the shaman or other religious authorities, produced verification of the mythic traditions of the society. As Bean and Saubel (1972:62) stated: "Datura enabled [the initiate] to glimpse the ultimate reality of the creation stories in Cahuilla cosmology." The imagery involved in datura intoxication, and its connections to physical-world animals and plants and belief systems in indigenous Southwestern groups, is briefly summarized in Boyd (2003: 95-99).

The Zuñi also assigned many ritual, ceremonial, and healing applications to this plant. Its use was limited to a select few in the community, a wise practice considering the lethality of the plant. Only the rain priests and the directors of the Little Fire and Cimex Fraternities could use datura. Datura use was governed by protocol, and prayer plumes had to be prepared and deposited in recognition of this very sacred plant. Interestingly the "squash blossom", the so-described headdress for women and a popular image in Southwestern art, is not really a squash blossom, but instead a datura blossom (Stevenson 1915:46).

In far lower doses, datura was utilized in more mundane, medicinal applications. The Cahuilla understood that datura was a pain reliever, especially for setting bones, and applied it to specific areas of the body. For wounds like broken bones a paste of powdered leaves would be heated and applied to the area of the break, and a hot stone would be pressed against the area for warmth. Powdered leaves were made into an ointment and spread on an afflicted body part, including teeth and gums, or insect bites (Bean and Saubel 1972:62).

For bad colds, asthma, or bronchitis, the patient would inhale steam from datura leaves to relieve congestion. The atropine in the plant effectively dilates and dries out nasal passages (Bean and Saubel 1972:62). The Zuñi made a paste of the root and flowers and applied this to all types of wounds, claiming that the practice accelerated healing (Stevenson 1915:46).

References:

Applegate, Richard. B.
1975  The Datura Cult Among the Chumash. Journal of California Anthropology 2:7-17.

Bean, Lowell J. and Katherine S. Saubel
1972  Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Malki Museum Press, Morongo Indian Reservation, Banning, California.

Bennet, Wendell C. and Robert M. Zingg
1935  The Tarahumara: An Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois.

Boyd, Carolyn E.
2003  Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas.

Bye, Robert, R. Mata, and J. Pimentel
1991  Botany, Ethnobotany, and Chemistry of Datura lanosa (Solanaceae) in Mexico. Anales del Instituto Biológica, Universidad Nacional Autónomo, Serie Botánica 61(1):21-42.

Cutler, Hugh C.
1956  The Plant Remains. In Higgins Flat Pueblo: Western New Mexico, edited by P. S. Martin, J. B. Rinaldo, E.A. Bluhm, and H. C. Cutler, pp. 174-183. Fieldiana, Anthropology 45, Chicago Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

Cutler, Hugh C. and Lawrence Kaplan
1956  Some Plant Remains from Montezuma Castle and Nearby Caves (NA4007B and C on Dry Beaver Creek). Plateau 28:98-100.

Dering, J. Philip
1979  Pollen and Plant Macrofossil Vegetation Record Recovered from Hinds Cave, Val Verde County, Texas. M.S. thesis, Texas A&M University. Published by the Department of Anthropology. College Station, Texas.

Elmore, Francis. H.
1943  Ethnobotany of the Navajo. University of New Mexico Bulletin. Monograph Series 1(7). University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, New Mexico.

La Barre, Weston
1975  The Peyote Cult. 4th edition. Schocken Books, New York, New York.

Litovitz T. L., L. R. Clark, and Soloway R. A.
1994  The 1993 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers Toxic Exposure Surveillance System. American Journal of Emergency Medicine 12:546-84.

Pennington, Campbell W.
1963  The Tarahumara of Mexico: Their Environment and Material Culture. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Schultes, Richard E.
1972  An Overview of Hallucinogens in the Western Hemisphere. In Flesh of the Gods, ed. by Peter T. Furst, pp. 3-54. Praeger, New York.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe
1915  Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians. In Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. [1908-1909], pp. 35-103. Washington, D.C.

Yarnell, Richard A.
1959  Prehistoric Pueblo Use of Datura. El Palacio 66(5):176-178.

Zingg, Robert M.
1938  Report of the Mr. and Mrs. Henry Pfeiffer Expedition for Huichol Ethnography: The Huichols, Primitive Artists. 1977, reprint. Kraus Reprints, Millwood, New York.

photo of Jimson weed plant
Datura (Jimson Weed) has showy white flowers that open at night .